Coastal Mall blues
There is a current drive to collect one million signatures to convince government, particularly the Metro Manila Development Authority, to scuttle plans to centralize bus terminal operations in the metropolis, specifically the one located at the Uniwide Coastal Mall meant for buses coming from Cavite and environs.
In reaction, MMDA Chair Francis Tolentino acknowledged that while the protesters, grouped under the new consumer group Coalition of Filipino Consumers, “can exercise their right to express their grievances,” he also wanted to know whether they could “offer us viable alternatives.”
Well, actually, there was a viable alternative previously. In 1993, the then MMDA chair, Bayani Fernando, established an Organized Bus Route (OBR) terminal for northbound buses on Roxas Boulevard near Baclaran church. Commuters, according to reports, preferred this arrangement as it allowed them to conveniently transfer to jeepneys or city buses to bring them into the city. Apparently, too, it seemed to work, as the Baclaran terminal was dismantled only in 2010, when Tolentino took over the MMDA.
TV news coverage of the early days of the Coastal Mall operations some weeks ago was a testament to the confusion attending the transfer of passengers between provincial buses and city transport. Commuters were one in their complaints, especially since the first few days of the “experiment” were marked by bad weather, with passengers hogging roadsides and scrambling for rides even if it meant taking a “round trip.” They also sounded off on their delayed trips, since public transportation like buses and jeepneys could not enter the terminal as fast as the number of passengers accumulated, as well as, of course, the added expense of an additional ride to reach their destinations.
How could the MMDA not have anticipated the confusion and the sheer number of passengers waiting for rides? I asked myself. After all, Tolentino had been sounding off about the terminal weeks before, and surely, he had enough time to conduct time-and-motion studies before inviting pandemonium at the Coastal Mall.
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But the problem seems rooted in something more than just lack of preparations or faulty anticipation of problems that would arise from using the Coastal Mall as a terminal.
It arises from a policy decision of the MMDA itself, which in its laudable intent to reduce vehicular traffic on congested Edsa, seems to have focused on the wrong, or least guilty, targets.
Observers note that if the purpose of the Interim Southwest Integrated Provincial Transport Terminal (the official, rather long name of the Coastal Mall hub) is to decongest Edsa, why target (first) the provincial buses from Cavite? These hardly use Edsa, while those that make the trip to Lawton (usually carrying students who attend institutions in the University Belt) take Roxas Boulevard, Quirino Avenue, then Taft Avenue.
A briefer provided by critics of the scheme acknowledges that while “the concept of an Integrated Bus Terminal is a good idea,” the implementation was faulty. And these critics trace the “fault” first of all to the flawed contract between the MMDA and Uniwide, which is just a tenant on the property which is owned by Manila Bay Development Corp. (MBDC).
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Uniwide has not even been a tenant of good standing. Since 1995, after an aggressive campaign to get MBDC to grant it permission to build on site, it has been defaulting on its rental payments.
But last October, the Court of Appeals ruled in MBDC’s favor in its ejection case filed against Uniwide, directing Uniwide to pay rental arrears of P256 million, real estate taxes, and other pertinent fees and compensation. Why Tolentino chose to sign a contract with Uniwide despite its legal troubles and questionable ownership of the mall, remains a mystery.
Not so mysterious is why Uniwide is fighting to keep “custody” of the terminal, despite the many complaints aired. One explanation is that the facility has become a “cash cow” for Uniwide. While, true to Tolentino’s assertion, provincial buses are not charged any toll to enter the Coastal Mall, all other vehicles, including public city buses and PUVs, are charged P20 upon exit.
The sum of P20 may not sound like much, especially compared to the P40 plus that some malls charge for parking. But consider that the terminal operates 24/7, accommodating thousands of buses and jeepneys picking up passengers transferring from the provincial buses. One estimate puts the take of the Coastal Mall from exiting buses, as well as the “loading fee” known as “association dues” for taxis and other PUVs at P544,500 a day, or nearly P600 million over three years.
A cash cow, indeed. But why is Uniwide allowed to collect toll fees when it was the MMDA (and thus, the people’s money) that was used to develop the terminal?
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The latest TV news broadcast about the Coastal Mall is how the MMDA has “prettified” the place, building a playground, among other facilities. But beleaguered commuters saw through the scheme, complaining that what they need are more efficient arrangements and passenger-friendly policies and not cosmetic changes.
Of course we must all bite the bullet when it comes to Metro Manila’s major traffic woes. And some of us will have to make sacrifices if we want to live in a more humane city. But while we’re all willing to cooperate to build a more liveable metropolis, should we, particularly the commuters from Cavite, Batangas and other areas, suffer needlessly while one corporation makes tons of money from the situation?